How to hire an H-1B

Ask Debbie Kaylor what the best things about hiring foreign national technology workers under the H-1B visa program are, and she quickly cites cultural exchange and "really great Indian dinners."

On further reflection, Kaylor, a recruiting manager at Extended Systems Inc., a software development firm in Boise, Idaho, says the real advantage, obviously, is getting skilled technology workers during a time of great shortage.

With the near doubling this year of the number of H-1B workers that can be sponsored annually, Kaylor says, many IT managers will soon be discovering this source of IT labor for the first time. The intense competition for those visas by sponsoring companies and the time involved in getting an application approved puts the burden on IT managers to learn the process quickly.

"You learn a lot going through the process, but my advice is to use an attorney and not to risk making mistakes like filling out the form wrong and getting it sent back," Kaylor says.

In fact, communication, tenacity and good legal counsel - not to mention a multinational approach to hiring - are the best assets to have when using the H-1B visa program to fill technical positions.

Take MasterCard International Inc. in Purchase, N.Y., for example. The financial services firm has a decentralized organizational structure, with IT staff at home locations in Belgium, India and Australia. It also has a long-term relationship with Chennai, India-based contract management firm Mascon Global Ltd. This approach ensures that the majority of MasterCard's H-1B hires are already working for the firm, either at the remote centers or as contract employees.

MasterCard's partnership with Mascon helps it fill in the gaps with temporary and contract help during the H-1B approval process, says Rob Reeg, senior vice president of systems development at MasterCard. It usually takes six to nine weeks for approval of an H-1B application, he says.

The jobs that MasterCard uses H-1B workers to fill range from working on maintenance enhancement projects to helping rewrite core transaction-processing systems.

"We look for programming skills, C++, Java, HTML, database administrators and management systems programmers," says Carolyn Koenig, MasterCard's senior vice president of human resources.

The Approval Process

It's far easier for applicants with advanced degrees to get H-1B visas, says Koenig. H-1B candidates are generally highly educated and fill skilled positions. And because MasterCard's centers serve customers who represent 27 languages, multiple language skills are a definite plus, she says.

Once a candidate is targeted - meaning he goes through the same interview process any other hire does and meets the qualifications for the job - his visa status is addressed. The total cost of sponsorship is approximately $5,000, Koenig says.

The H-1B application process is laborious, so Koenig recommends using a legal firm that specializes in the process.

"You can miss one question or not answer something appropriately, and it will get sent back, and you have doubled the time it takes," she explains.

Waiting for visa approval can be a source of anxiety for applicants. One software engineer from India who works at SAS Institute Inc. in Cary, N.C., came to the U.S. 12 years ago and has worked at three companies since then. His first eight years were on an F1 (student) visa, and the past four years were on an H-1B. This foreign national worker had to get a new H-1B visa for each of his two earlier jobs.

"One firm was purchased by another, and the project I was working on was eliminated," so he needed a new job, the worker explains. But the waiting process for the H-1B was stressful, he says.

"The dynamic of the job situation, where companies are restructuring all the time, makes it seem like you don't know what is going to happen tomorrow. If you are on an H-1B visa, then you can be left without anything to hang on to. You can get another job, but the process takes a long time," he says.

Assimilation, adjustment and differences in culture all come into play when settling an H-1B visa holder into a job, says Koenig. Some of the hardest things to work out are the cultural differences.

That's why MasterCard has a relocation program that addresses family concerns, advising foreign employees on how to apply for a driver's license and other typical procedures. Reeg also employs a buddy system on the job, matching newcomers with people of the same nationality to help answer questions.

Easing Transitions

The new regulations governing H-1B visas that were approved last year appear to have addressed the problem of waiting time and some of the other troublesome aspects of the program.

The new regulations offer workers the ability to change jobs more easily, says David E. Yurkofsky, co-chairman of the Continuing Legal Education Committee of the New York chapter of the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Association. They also eliminate the requirement of filing an amended H-1B petition in many corporate restructuring situations, extend H-1B status beyond six years and let green-card applicants change employers.

And it's the green card that's the brass ring for many H-1B visa holders and employers, especially after they make the investment in relocation and training, says Jeff Chambers, director of human resources at SAS Institute.

"We have converted a lot of H-1B visa holders to permanent residence after they work out on the job," he says.

Leinfuss is a freelance writer in Sarasota, Fla.

Tips for H-1B Hiring

What happens after the hiring manager identifies a foreign national job candidate and wants to hire him? Here are some tips from David E. Yurkofsky, co-chairman of the Continuing Legal Education Committee of the New York chapter of the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Association:

-Make sure it's a job that requires a four-year college degree. If other workers doing the job didn't have college degrees at the time they were hired (or the mandated equivalent of 12 years' work experience), it is, by definition, not an H-1B position.

-Ensure that the job is paying the prevailing wage. This means checking the proposed wage against labor department statistics for the occupation and geographic region of the U.S. or, if those figures aren't available, conducting an independent survey.

-Use the Department of Labor's fax-back system to obtain an approved labor-condition application.

Also note:

-A company can't hire someone until his H-1B is approved.

-If the candidate was already working through an H-1B visa at another company in a similar type of job, he can begin working at the new job as soon as the application has been filed.

-Other filing requirements and frequently asked questions are available online at the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Web site: www.ins.usdoj.gov.

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